Four Challenges Facing the 21st Century Church

I am neither a prophet nor the son of one.

Yet, as a young-ish university professor and a pastor, I am often asked about the challenges facing the American church in the 21st century.

What are some of these?

The following four answers are not exhaustive or infallible, but they are honest.

1. Embracing Exile (Without Abandoning Mission)

In past generations, and especially in the Bible belt (where I live), religious leaders propagated the notion that there was a “moral majority” of Bible-believing Christians, who simply needed to be mobilized in order to (I apologize…) “take back America.”

Whether this was ever true may be debated. Yet in recent years, it is increasingly obvious that the idea is simply delusional. Committed Christians are nowhere near a place of numerical dominance, either within the larger culture, or within the self-identifying “evangelical right”—as illustrated by the embarrassment that is the rise of Donald Trump. Given this, we Christians are in no position to throw our cultural weight around. Those days, if they ever existed, are long since over.

So what cultural image should replace that of the not-so-moral non-majority? Let me suggest a biblical one: the vocation of a missional minority in a place of cultural exile.

But first, some qualifiers: Exile is not the same as persecution. Before throwing around the “P”-word, American evangelicals should turn on the world news, to find out what the term actually means. Also, in the Scriptures, exile isn’t all bad, nor is it the end of cultural engagement. While often a penalty for sins committed (of which we have more than our fair share), exile is a place of repentance, reflection, and of contribution to “the peace of the city” (Jer. 29.7).

To use an oft-quoted phrase, it means being a counterculture for the common good.

So while cultural exile doesn’t mean an end to mission, evangelism, or renewal, it does mean that we stop pretending that we can dictate demands based on our massive size or political influence. In doing so, we come to grips with life on the margins, where Jesus lived, and where the early church took root.

Cultural exile isn’t the end, but it does demand a change in posture, and that brings us to a second challenge.

2. Unbundling (Without Discarding Core Commitments)

For Cable and Internet providers, “bundling” is a way to offer more for less. Why pay separately for certain items (TV, phone, and Internet) when they come prepackaged?

But when it comes to theological and social issues, “bundling” can be bad. Hence, another challenge for the American church will be to unbundle some personal and political opinions that have been oddly intertwined with the core commitments of the gospel, and then sold as a set.

In short, we need to be clearer about what are “gospel-issues” and what are not.

Some examples: One’s love for the 2nd amendment is not a gospel issue (at least not in the way that some seem to think it is). Nor is one’s opinion on which form of governance leads to human flourishing. Whether one endorses capitalism or sees it as morally deficient is a question over which good Christians may disagree, so long as our goal is neighbor-love as an expression of our love for God.

By all means, debate. Have strong opinions and back them up. But, do not bundle them together with the core commitments of our faith (Christ, Trinity, salvation, and the call to Spirit-driven holiness) and call it evangelicalism. Doing so does great harm to the gospel. In this way, unbundling the extraneous issues (without letting go of core commitments!) will continue to be a major challenge.

3. Responding to Science (Without Relinquishing our Reason)

When I did my seminary training in the early 2000s, “postmodernism” was all the rage. At the time, whole cottage industries sprung up over rumors that certain churches were “emerging,” and there was a furious run on prayer candles and black-rimmed glasses.

I barely got mine.

Modernity was passé, and with it the preoccupation with Reason and Science as ultimate guides to truth.

Around this same time, I recall a classroom discussion in which a visiting professor was asked about what came next. What follows on the heels of this initial version of postmodernism? I still remember what she said—For many, it will be a reinvigorated “Scientism.”

This was before I had even heard of “The New Atheism,” but the thought was prescient.

From the “born that way” argument, to evangelical debates on the historical Adam, and on to some of the fastest growing Christian podcasts (See The Liturgists and Science Mike Mchargue)—Science is posing serious questions to the Christian faith.

And thoughtful Christians must respond in thoughtful ways. Neither fundamentalist antagonism nor blanket acceptance of the “assured results” will do. Thus, while groups like “Answers in Genesis” and “Biologos” provide polar (and not always satisfying) examples of Christian engagement, the question remains an open one: How will the church engage with scientific questions without compromising our commitment to the gospel?

4. Speaking in Tongues (While Saying Something Substantive)

As I teach freshmen college students every semester, one reality is clear: Most of them don’t know the first thing about the Bible or Christian theology. And that includes the ones who have grown up in church. In some ways, this reality affords an opportunity, and I am grateful for it. The situation is largely not their fault, and it does not mean that they are unintelligent or apathetic.

For better or worse, most of them are familiar with the “bundles” of American evangelicalism (see above), but that’s about it.

And this presents a paradox.

On the one hand, it requires that we start from the beginning in the Christian story. We assume nothing, and we meet people where they are. In short, this must happen when you tell your story from a place of exile.

On the other hand, it will not work to simply abandon careful study of the Scriptures, robust doctrine, and nuanced theology. This is the very move that helped create the problem in the first place.

After all, what would you know of Scripture if every sermon you heard was little more than a motivational pep-talk, a moralistic drubbing, or a practical guide to better life? These moves are understandable in the quest to be relevant and understood—so we shouldn’t simply bash the efforts of the Seeker movement or the hardworking mega-churches. But if we’re not careful, the breathless chasing after relevance perpetuates the problem.

In short, we need the power of the Spirit to “speak in tongues.” And while I deeply love my charismatic brethren, I don’t mean this in the common sense. We must come to tell the scriptural story as the first apostles did (Note: Peter’s Acts 2 sermon was as biblical as it was blunt). But, we must also do this in ways that can be understood by our hearers, and this is difficult. In fact, it is so difficult that, if it happens at all, it will be miracle. Yet as a Christian, I believe in those.

The future is not lost; let us then engage it with hope and holiness, grace and truth.

5 COMMENTS

  1. “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, love.” St. Augustine

    As Christians, we must learn to distinguish essentials from non-essentials. The bundling you speak of happens when essentials and non-essentials are presented as absolute requirements. I go back to The Apostle’s Creed when I think about essentials.

    I believe in God, the Father almighty,
    creator of heaven and earth.

    I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
    He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
    and born of the Virgin Mary.
    He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
    was crucified, died, and was buried.
    He descended to the dead.
    On the third day he rose again.
    He ascended into heaven,
    and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
    He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

    I believe in the Holy Spirit,
    the holy catholic Church*,
    the communion of saints,
    the forgiveness of sins,
    the resurrection of the body,
    and the life everlasting.

    *meaning the universal Christian church – all believers
    in Jesus Christ

  2. I am thankful for this reflection. Thankful in particular because this attitude frees us to follow Christ in freedom and faithfulness. No more grasping desperately for reins of political power. Rather, and simply, living in the truth, witnessing to the truth, manifesting the fruits of the Spirit, remaining faithful through thick and thin. Much like the first followers in Acts: faithful exiles who neither commanded political power nor acquiesced to the powers. With God’s help they made the powers tremble.

  3. A view from the UMC pew: Love this statement:”On the one hand, it requires that we start from the beginning in the Christian story.” Three years ago, after decades of struggling with what it means to be a Christian, circumstances finally forced me to distance myself from all things church. After rummaging around for a while I finally engaged the Heidelberg Catechism and three very modern books about it:

    “Body & Soul” by M. Craig Barnes

    “The Good News We Almost Forgot” by Kevin DeYoung

    “Comforting Hearts Teaching Minds” by Starr Meade

    They were my lesson in what all I did not know and understand about basic orthodox Christianity. I finally found myself in the wide open space of God’s amazing grace. I was also left with a nagging question: why had I never encountered this type of clear-headed teaching before now?

    The Heidelberg deals directly with God created, humanity rebelled and God goes to amazing lengths to redeem us. It adds depth and understanding to the Apostle’s Creed, The Lord’s Prayer and The Ten Commandments as well as the sacraments of Baptism and Communion. Since the Heidelberg and the three books, I have spent a significant time on seedbed and faithfully read the Daily Text; much of what I have read has been an echo of what I have already learned from the Heidelberg and the books about it.

    One more thought re the science question: Having spent a significant amount of time working in scientific research, I had grappled with the question of how do science and the Bible connect. At this point post Heidelberg, I am not too worried about that question anymore. A statement from my major professor when I was doing research for my thesis surfaces: Scientific research is the result of Eve eating the apple. I don’t necessarily agree but then neither do I disagree. I find it an interesting thought to consider. So what if the world was not created in 7 days as we now understand them–besides, the sun and moon were not created on Day 1 anyway. Important thing for me is we have a Creator God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit and this triune God loves each and every one of us, including me, more than we could ever think about loving ourselves! He would like nothing better than to transform me into the truly human person he intended when he created the world and everything in it and called it good.

    I now believe what Kevin DeYoung states in the intro of his book:

    “No doubt, the church in the west has many new things to
    learn. But for the most part, everything we need to learn is what we’ve already
    forgotten. The chief theological task now facing the Western church is not to
    reinvent or to be relevant but to remember. We must remember the old, old
    story. We must remember the faith once delivered to the saints. We must
    remember the truths that spark reformation, revival, and regeneration…In a church
    age confused about the essential elements of
    the Christian faith—and whether Christianity has any doctrinal center at
    all—the Heidelberg Catechism offers a relentless reminder of the one doctrine
    that matters most: We are great sinners and Christ is a greater Savior.” —
    Kevin DeYoung, The Good News We Almost Forgot

  4. This was a beautiful write-up, Josh. It really resonated with some of my own thoughts in these areas, but you were able to put language where I didn’t have it. Thank you for sharing. God bless, brother.

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